Painting the Town: Perusing the Colors of Charleston
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photos courtesy of CHARLESTON AREA CVB | EXPLORECHARLESTON.COM; GRAND BOHEMIAN HOTEL CHARLESTON; THE ORDINARY | ANDREW CEBULKA; CANDY SHOP VINTAGE; HIGH WIRE DISTILLERY
MY GPS ANNOUNCED I had arrived, but I accidentally drove right by the valet. I missed the left-hand turn because I didn’t want to miss anything about the scene unfolding around me on Wentworth Street. Even in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, amid stalled delivery trucks, coeds whizzing by on bikes and stylish Southerners strutting their stuff, Charleston, S.C. can hold a gaze.
I circled the block, my serendipitous mistake excused as a second chance to take in the sight of one of the Historic District’s newer additions: the Grand Bohemian Hotel Charleston. Located on the corner of Meeting Street, the exterior’s stately Chantilly white façade greets guests in the way a blank canvas calls to an artist. Stepping inside the lobby, however, suddenly felt more kin to Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
Regardless of which direction you turn, within the luxe property’s gallery-like walls or through the streets of the South’s capital city for sophistication, you’re in for a kaleidoscope of surprises.
A RARE BLEND
If a Grand Bohemian Hotel is kin to Wonderland, then the stylish Hatter himself may very well be a man by the name of Richard C. Kessler, the visionary and eccentric entrepreneur behind The Kessler Collection — 12 outstanding, four-star boutique hotels throughout the country. Since debuting the Grand Bohemian Charleston in August 2015, the Collection added a hotel in Birmingham, Ala. as well as recently broke ground on their latest project in his hometown of Savannah, Ga.
Each is further evidence of his unique approach to hospitality and all are designed to “inspire mystique and experiences beyond reason.” Kessler properties are also distinguished as founding members of the Marriott Autograph Collection, meaning that while their stay may be unparalleled, guests can still accrue and utilize their Marriott Rewards points.
Rather than tea with the March Hare, I imagine a Kessler party might include fine wine and Head Sommelier Sarah Young – not unlike what I experienced in the wine blending and tasting rooms, located just across from the front desk. Taking a seat at the long wooden table, the stemmed glasses in front of each seat resembles a chic science project, with flutes bouncing light from the overhead chandeliers. It’s obvious a one-of-a-kind experience awaits, even without being told the Grand Bohemian Hotel Charleston was the first stand-alone hotel in the U.S. to offer this type of indoctrination. For 90 minutes, Young guided us through sipping different varietals before letting them loose with carafes and pipettes to play winemaker. Once you’ve settled on your own custom blend, it’s time to bottle and cork your creation, complete with a personalized label.
No need to hesitate to enjoy, nor save the souvenir until you return home, either. The keen staff will keep your specifics on file, so you can order a shipment at anytime or request a replica to celebrate a special occasion – perhaps a wedding or anniversary blend – upon a return visit. In fact, couples that get married at a Kessler Collection property are treated to a complimentary one-night stay to be used on their anniversary date every year. The Kessler Collection is built upon pillars of art, food, wine and music, so you can expect your senses to be fully engaged as you explore the onsite art gallery featuring national, regional and local artists, admire masterpieces in the hallways (many pieces rotate from Kessler’s private collection) or unwind in one of the 50, well-appointed rooms.
There’s also my favorite feature of all: interior windows that allow peek-a-boo glances into an art atrium, built purely for aesthetic purposes and causing pedestrians to pause. Want to know more about a particular piece? Ask the Gallery Director Dayna Lorraine Caldwell for a complimentary hotel tour.
You can even play the role of muse, thanks to one of the hotel’s artists-in-residence, Daniel Velasco. During the hotel’s one-year anniversary celebration, the talented fashion illustrator skillfully captured those who sat for him. It was a timeless memento made within minutes.
FROM PALETTES TO PALATES
A stay at a Kessler Collection hotel piques curiosity and challenges perspective. Combine that with The Grand Bohemian Charleston’s central locale, and it doesn’t take long to crave an outing to explore its surroundings.
There’s something intrinsic to Charleston that gives it such a distinct sense of place. There’s the popular connotation of historic streets, lined with palm trees, pastel homes on Rainbow Row and the way “Charleston” gets an extra syllable when spoken with a Southern drawl. Yet, for each who comes, the city has an uncanny ability to also hold its own meaning, with plenty of blocks beckoning you to stroll down and discover your own.
For instance, the hotel’s front door is just steps away from the famed shopping along King Street, where storefronts of local favorites like Candlefish, Worthwhile and countless others appear in one direction. Meanwhile, serious foodies may flock across Meeting Street to Mike Lata’s iconic FIG (Food is Good), or venture half a mile to Frank Lee’s SNOB (Slightly North of Broad) or Sean Brock’s HUSK (not an acronym). As “Top Chef” fans tuning into the latest season – filmed in Charleston – can attest, the city has grown into an epicenter for epicureans. Some of the most notable chefs, including the ones noted here, have garnered much of that attention for their novel abilities to preserve and to reinvent Lowcountry cuisine.
Pursuing a penchant for oysters, my party enjoyed reservations upstairs at Lata’s The Ordinary, which prides itself on “fancy seafood” and is anything but what the name suggests. It’s been three years since the King Street establishment was announced as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award, Best New Restaurant category, but just as classic works get better with age, perhaps so it goes with dining here.
Order a shellfish tower to sample a variety of raw and cooked seafood from the East Coast, accompanied by garnishes like ginger-citrus mignonette, red wine mignonette, fresh prepared horseradish, red jalapeño hot sauce, lemongrass cocktail sauce and sauce Bagnarotte.
The restaurant is housed inside a building that was once a 1920’s bank with high ceilings and large windows, and from a lingering glance over the upstairs railing to the scene below, it nearly appeared as if I was looking down at a living painting.
After polishing off a few more courses (this is not the time to skip dessert), more strolling may be in order. First-timers to the city tend to go for a ghost tour by foot. A morning carriage ride by horse or sunset harbor tour by boat also remain as popular options, however a discerning or frequent traveller may prefer an architectural- focused tour or self-guided saunter through the Gibbes Museum of Art. The first gives you glimpses into the history behind lush secret gardens, blue porch ceilings, coral limestone walls and black wrought iron gates; however, depending on the time of the year and the weather, the latter’s controlled heating and air may be a welcomed alternative. Added bonus: it’s only half a mile from the hotel.
Dating back to 1905, the Gibbes can help a visitor understand the city’s bigger picture. Since emerging as a bustling seaport powered by slavery, rice and indigo trade in the 1700s, Charleston has been a host city to a mix of cultures, religions and traditions. It was the fourth largest city in America in 1790 – and the wealthiest, but art is what particularly distinguished this Southern port from places like Philadelphia, Penn., Boston, Mass., and New York, N.Y.
Despite a wealth of history or, thanks to it, new artists and artisans continue to flourish here. Like the area’s most acclaimed chefs, the ones that tend to catch the most eyes have done so by putting their own spin on tradition.
Consider the Charleston Rice Beads by Candy Shop Vintage. Designed by Deirdre Zahl, the shape and texture of the beads pay homage to the port city’s economical roots and are inspired by styles she found in antique stores and flea markets, but have been infused with modern whimsy.
Or perhaps, you’ll prefer a taste of history from High Wire Distillery, the Holy City’s first since prohibition. After a “tour” and sample of the Hat Trick Botanical Gin, I can confirm their talk about seeking the finest ingredients available and developing recipes using a creative, culinary approach isn’t just fancy lingo, but a flavorful truth. I also learned High Wire’s other small-batch spirits tend to sell out quickly to fellow believers.
Before checking out of the Grand Bohemian, there’s one more must to check off your to-do list and that’s a meal at Élevé Restaurant and Bar, located on the hotel’s top floor and helmed by Chef Ryley McGillis. Or, make that two meals, as the Sunday morning atmosphere during brunch service is much different from the Saturday night crowd that congregates among the rooftop terrace’s funky décor, but both have their respective appeals.
Previously found in the kitchen at The Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island’s Jasmine Porch, McGillis’ approach to coastal-influenced, farm-to-table cuisine is inventive, yet doesn’t stray into unapproachable territory. A few cameo appearances from the Junior League’s legendary “Charleston Receipts” uphold that omniscient sense of place. Likewise, a late-night meal may also lead to chocolate indulgences exquisitely paired with the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve from Madeira, Portugal – Rare Wine Co. Historic Series vintage named for the city known for importing the drier varietal in the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile, the brunch menu offers your stomach a chance to savor their Charleston Benedict – Black Forest Ham with grilled heirloom tomatoes, Mrs. Leigh Tyer Deas, Jr.’s avocado mousse and Mrs. Ralph Mills’ Hollandaise on Mrs. Daryl Lamar Forrester’s English muffins.
More of a grab-and-go kind of morning? The vibrant Maison Café, back on the hotel’s first floor, serves light bites, baked pastries and specialty coffee drinks, or nearby Caviar & Bananas is worth a gourmet pit stop on your way out of town.
Gearing up to drive away from a place this charming definitely requires some strong caffeine. But being able to conjure up dreamy connotations of future weekend jaunts and bohemian-inspired travels at the sound of the city’s name seems to work best when you’re approximately a five-hour drive away.
After all, you have to leave a place before you can return, miss turns and rediscover it all over again.